For seven months, potential energy-producing wind has whipped through eastern Lee County completely unharnessed.
Even though all local governments involved, from the surrounding communities to the county board, have signed off on the proposed Big Sky Wind Farm near Amboy, construction has yet to begin.
That’s because the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity has been slow to sign off on a proposal to expand the Lee County Enterprise Zone, said John Thompson, president of the Dixon Area Chamber of Commerce.
“There are some staffing issues at the state level. They get a lot of applications that have to be read through and signed off on, and they get bogged down,” Thompson said.
That is a claim state officials contend is inaccurate, though.
“There is a certain time limit we have for when an enterprise zone (proposal) comes in, and we are within it,” said Mark Harris, spokesman for the commerce department. “There are a number of steps, and these things do take time.”
The state has up to 90 days to respond to proposals such as the one Thompson submitted May 30.
In the past, commerce department turnaround was much quicker, local officials said.
“It used to take three weeks a few years ago. Now everything takes a couple months,” said Betty Steinert, manager of the Whiteside and Carroll County enterprise zones. “Applications are sitting down there for a long time.”
Economic development is a notoriously slow process as it is. Every city government, school district and county board within an enterprise zone district must sign off on any additions, which means it can take six to eight weeks just to get the proposal to Springfield, Steinert said.
Expanding the zone to include the 68 plots of farmland where the wind towers will be built is necessary to give Big Sky certain tax breaks, Thompson said.
Projects built within the zone are exempt from certain taxes, such as sales tax on building materials bought in Illinois.
The tradeoff is worth it. When completed, the wind farm will add about $880,000 in property taxes to area coffers, Thompson said.
While everyone waits on the expansion’s approval, though, prime construction season is passing by, leaving Big Sky and others in a lurch.
For instance, it’s difficult setting a budget when you’re not sure how much money you’re going to have coming in, said Quintin Shepherd, superintendent of Amboy schools.
The wind farm “is a great thing, you can’t argue with green energy,” Shepherd said. “But here is a major project that is going to hit our property tax roll, and the question is, when?”
It is frustrating for all involved to have to wait for a simple signature, Thompson said. That’s why he has lobbied legislators to pass a law granting automatic exemptions, similar to what enterprise zones provide, for ethanol and wind energy projects, thus bypassing the bureaucratic red tape and promoting renewable energy development in the state.
Like obtaining approval from the state, though, influencing lawmakers also is a slow process, Thompson said.
“It’s the way it is sometimes in Springfield – the wheels turn slow.”
Big Sky representatives did not immediately return a call seeking comment for this story.
By Andrew Walters
8 July 2007
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